By David Hearst
It has been apparent for some time that the war against the Islamic State (IS) group and its forebear al-Qaeda is by no means the only show in town in the Middle East. In fact, for most of the time, the war on terror has been a sideshow.
The attempt to bring Qatar to heel by closing its borders and effectively laying siege to it has shed light on the real forces competing for dominance of the region in the post-Western world in which we live today.
Three regional blocks are vying for control.
The first is led by Iran – its state actors including Iraq and Syria, and non-state ones the Shia militias in Iraq, Hezbollah and the Houthis.
The second is the ancien regimes of absolute Gulf monarchs: Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, while also including Jordan and Egypt.
The third block is led by Turkey, Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood and the forces instrumental in the Arab Spring.
In this three-way fight, America’s allies are just as destabilising to regional order as America’s foes, and the campaign launched against Qatar is a prime example of this.
Saudi Arabia has made a strategic miscalculation by attempting to impose its will on little Qatar. Because in so doing, it has upset a regional order on which it relied to confront Iran’s dominance in countries all around the kingdom.
Put another way, if the Iranian-backed civil war in Syria brought Saudi and Turkey together, the Qatari conflict has done the opposite. In fact, it could lead to the construction of a common cause among Iran, Turkey and forces of Sunni political Islam – as bizarre as this may seem.
The two powers would not fall into each other’s arms naturally, but they could come together amid the reckless and shortsighted policies of Saudi Arabia. The Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif was in Ankara on Wednesday.
Pentagon contradicts Trump’s tweets
The two game changers for Saudi Arabia’s campaign against Qatar are the Turkish parliament’s decision to fast track legislation allowing Turkish troops to be deployed at a base in Qatar, and the statement by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps accusing Saudi Arabia of responsibility for the attack on the Iranian parliament and the Mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini in which 12 died.
This leaves Saudi Arabia isolated. It can bully smaller nations, but it cannot defend its own borders without substantial amounts of foreign military support.
Whatever their commander-in-chief may tweet, the US military in the Gulf is trying very hard to avoid having to provide it. Which is possibly one reason why the White House and the Pentagon have been saying different things about Qatar this week.
Shortly after Qatar’s land border with Saudi was closed at dawn on 5 June, the Pentagon lauded Qatar’s “enduring commitment to regional security”.
It said pointedly about al Udeid airbase, which is the forward base of US Air Forces Central Command, that “all flights continue as planned”. About 10,000 US troops are based there.
Then came Trump’s tweets, which essentially claimed ownership of the extraordinary moves against Qatar by saying they were the fruits of the address he made in Riyadh before 50 Arab and Muslim leaders. And then came a second Pentagon statement, renewing praise of Qatar for hosting US forces.
The Pentagon was joined by Europe, or least the foreign minister of its most important state, Germany. Sigmar Gabriel said: “Apparently, Qatar is to be isolated more or less completely and hit existentially. Such a Trumpization of treatment is particularly dangerous in a region already plagued by crisis.”
Soon after the Turkish decision, Trump was on the phone to the Emir of Qatar offering mediation; 24 hours after his tweet, it seemed the message from his military had gotten through to him.
Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have now bitten off more than they can chew.
Their first miscalculation was to buy the Trump narrative. When you purchase a Trump product, you buy a lot more with it. There are side effects, not least the sheer amount of resentment, hostility and resistance Trump himself has created at home.
This is not inconsiderable when you review who resents Trump – the CIA, Pentagon, State Department, senators of all colours, and the judges. This is not just America’s deep state, but if it were only them, they are enough to be going on with.
The much-in-the-news Emirati ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, made the classic mistake of thinking that because he had former defence secretary Robert Gates eating out of his hand, the rest of the defence department would do the same. It plainly did not.
Russia’s US ambassador Sergey Kislyak, now dubbed Washington’s most dangerous diplomat, fell to earth over a similar act of hubris. All of these ambassadors confuse their success as lobbyists with foreign policy-making. The two are different.
Their second miscalculation was to assume that because Qatar was small, no bigger nation would come to its defence. Both Saudi and the UAE have significant investments in Turkey, one of which Abu Dhabi made after it had tried to unseat Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a coup. Both thought Turkey would be bought off.
The opposite happened. Erdogan realised that if Qatar were crushed, he would be the only man of that camp standing.
Their third miscalculation was to reveal their real beef with Qatar. It has nothing to do with funding terrorism or cosying up to Iran. In fact the Emiratis do a roaring trade with Iran, and they are part of the coalition accusing Qatar of siding with Tehran.
Their real demands, which were conveyed to the Emir of Kuwait – who is acting as an intermediary – are the closure of Al Jazeera, de-funding of Al Arabi al Jadid, Al Quds al Arabi, and the Arabic edition of Huffington Post, along with the expulsion of Palestinian public intellectual Azmi Bishara.
This is the media that reveals – in Arabic – the stories that these Arab dictators most want their citizens not to read. Not content with muzzling their own media, they want to shut down all media that reveals the inconvenient truth about their despotic, venal, corrupt regimes, wherever it is in the world.
Israel Joins the unhappy party
Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood only come in at number 7 of this demand wishlist. The inclusion of Hamas on this list is another miscalculation, because whatever the US may think about the Palestinian movement, it is popular in the Gulf.
This is where Israel joins the unhappy party. As the hacked emails of Otaiba reveal, the Emiratis and the government of Binyamin Netanyahu are thick as thieves.
The Israeli prime minister is quite right to think that he has the backing of the major Arab states in suppressing all progress to a truly independent Palestinian state. That is about the last thing Egypt, Jordan, the UAE or Saudi Arabia want. The kingdoms are so keen to normalise relations with Israel that a Saudi commentator was recently interviewed for the first time on Israel’s Channel 2.
The Egyptian-Palestinian poet Tamim al Barghouti provided a fitting commentary to this. He wrote on the Facebook page:
“On the 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem, an Egyptian-Saudi-UAE-Bahraini-Israeli alliance forms and lays ground and aerial siege around an Arab country for no reason other than supporting the Palestinian and Lebanese resistance and the Arab revolutions over the past two decades, in particular the Egyptian revolution that brought down Israel’s ally and threatened the military authority of Camp David in Cairo. They are not punishing Doha over Syria, Libya, Yemen and the American base.
“They are punishing it for Al Jazeera’s testimony in the wars of Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza and for supporting the Palestinian resistance in 2009, 2012 and 2014 and the Lebanese resistance in 2000 and 2006. They are punishing it for the fall of Mubarak in 2011.
“A bankrupt and terrified military officer who suffers from Macbeth syndrome and who is washing his hands of old blood with a new one and an adolescent who is in a rush to become king and who is ambitious to surpass his cousin to the throne at whatever cost chose the fifth of June specifically in order to announce that their countries had just joined the Israeli strategic depth.”
The final miscalculation? Qatar is not Gaza. It’s got friends with big armies – a country with a population smaller than Houston has got a sovereign wealth fund worth $335bn. It is the largest producer of natural gas in the Middle East. It has a relationship with Exxon. The Saudis and Emiratis are not the only players in Washington. And even Gaza has survived its siege.
David Hearst, Contributor, Editor in Chief of Middle East Eye